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Actor David Sterne: retaining an aura of anonymity

Submitted by on June 6, 2017 – 10:06 pmNo Comment

David Sterne 1The face is instantly memorable although you might not know the name. David Sterne has appeared in more than 90 films including a Harry Potter and a Pirates of the Caribbean as well as taking roles in numerous television shows.

Despite that the former Derbyshire actor retains an aura of anonymity – a situation he loves.

At the age of 71 David shows no signs of slowing up. When we began our chat he yawned a few times, hardly surprising as he had just finished six months’ work with the BBC’s radio rep company and also squeezed in a couple of film roles.

He is one of those actors who holds nothing back. Married four times, he talks freely about becoming an alcoholic, how he has hardly stopped working since he gave up drink 30 years ago and how he has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company despite hating the Bard.

He gets back to Derbyshire three or four times a year and makes time to visit old friends. Although he has left the county, he has never forgotten it.

“Once Derbyshire’s in you, it’s part of you. The older I got, driving from Derby down to London and back all the time was quite a big event whereas where I live now, in Hampshire, it’s only an hour and ten minutes on the train and it’s only 50 minutes to drive to Teddington (television studios).

“Now I live in a little village and it’s great. And I’ve got a girlfriend who’s years younger than me. She’s a friend of my daughter’s, she’s lovely. She doesn’t drink either so that’s wonderful. Everything’s good in my life at the moment. I have to say it’s better now than it’s been for a long time.”

He puts his success partly down to the fact that he simply loves the acting business.

David as Blind Pew in Treasure Island at the National Theatre in 2014 (picture: Alastair Muir)

David as Blind Pew in Treasure Island at the National Theatre in 2014 (picture: Alastair Muir)

“I’ve been in kids’ TV, I’ve done some good series – I’ve been very lucky being able to do what I like doing best which is going on set, doing some scenes and having a laugh rather than having to bury my head in something terribly serious.

“You can be locked in doing those things and there’s no light outside. That takes your life away. You go home, learn your lines, go to bed, get up, do the lines and then you go home and learn more lines. It’s not fun and I’ve always tried to avoid that.

“My daughter is a production executive with Hartswood Films who make Sherlock (the TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman). When she was 18 she said ‘what’s it like being out of work, dad, because it goes with the business?’ Luckily she’s never been out of work more than me.

“You can’t just give up and go into depression until the phone rings – it’s just ridiculous. It’s a hard game, a survivor’s game, it really is. But I’ve been blessed.”

He was born David Stone but when his career started to take off his agents at the time changed his surname to Sterne – without even asking him. That was to avoid confusion with an American actor of the same name.

After coming out of the army David trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.

“It was all meant to be very polite but I was feral. I was having a laugh and getting drunk down the local pub. After three months I went to America thinking I was going to be John Wayne and ended up in Topeka, Kansas.

David as Canon Dobbs in the TV series Midwinter of the Spirit in 2015

David as Canon Dobbs in the TV series Midwinter of the Spirit in 2015

“I didn’t know I was going to the middle of nowhere. I could have stayed there but I came back to England and for my third job back I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

His career blossomed after that and he has worked with some of the greatest actors this country has ever produced.

He reveals he was always an anxious person with a lot of energy and his mother might have put pressure on him by urging him to be the best at everything he did.

That might have been one of the reasons he turned to drink. He was also brought up in a culture in which everyone used to go to the pub all the time. Actors he worked with did the same.

“It doesn’t really matter what turned me into an alcoholic. The fact is I was one and I dealt with it.

“I thought to myself: I’ve got a problem here – I don’t want to be doing this. You under-achieve in everything you do and you become a liability to those you wish to be an asset to. So it’s a terrible kind of spiral down really. But if you spiral up by not drinking, then the reverse is true. It sounds very simple. But when you’re in the middle of that complex world it’s a long time to recognise it.”

When David was married to his third wife – they were wed at Derby Register Office – she kept going on at him to stop. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous and says at the time he was “good and ready and willing” to stop drinking.

But there were distractions: David turned down the chance to perform in a play with legendary actor Sir Robert Stephens and his wife Patricia Quinn at the Old Vic because he wanted to quit drinking. Instead he accepted a part in a play in Leicester, to which Sir Robert replied: “You’re so boring!” He too was an alcoholic and died after liver and kidney transplants.

“You always like to play second banana, don’t you?” – Matthew Kelly

David’s first job when sober was at Sheffield Crucible in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, performing alongside Matthew Kelly. The pair are still mates.

Matthew recognises that David prefers anonymity to stardom. “You always like to play second banana, don’t you?” and David agrees.

So what does he regard as the highlights of his career? He cites Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest as a favourite as it was filmed on the ship that was originally used in the film Mutiny on the Bounty.

He also recalls with fondness his role in a television mini-series, The Choir, with James Fox in 1995 because it was filmed on the roof of Gloucester Cathedral. “No member of the public is allowed on the roof but we were up there filming – it’s just a blessing.”

David as Larry Bishop in the TV series Detectorists in 2014

David as Larry Bishop in the TV series Detectorists in 2014

In more recent times he played Larry Bishop in Detectorists, a series featuring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones – “it was beautifully written and conceived,” says David. “It was properly cast – I don’t say that with any kind of boasting. The way it happens sometimes is just perfect.”

He also played a ministry wizard in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But he is most proud of a play he did with a friend, Steve Bennett from Exeter. At the time David was playing Detective Chief Inspector Frank Uttley in the ITV series Thief Takers.

“I said to Steve we’ll have to do a play together. I’ll buy a van and we’ll go round Devon together. We did (Rudyard Kipling’s) The Man Who Would Be King. It’s the best thing we ever did.”

David says it is a “miracle” that he returned to every theatre where he originally performed when he was drinking, the second time “doing it the right way”. That includes the RSC where five years ago he played Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor despite hating Shakespeare.

That led to his appearing as a rat in the RSC’s 2012 Christmas show The Mouse and His Child. “The irony of me playing a rat and running around all over the place was quite amazing. It was just brilliant. It was wonderful to be able to go and do that.”

David’s busy schedule has continued with working in radio as well as accepting film roles.

“My ambition is to be happy, to keep going, to do a good job, to be honest and to have integrity”

“To think it’s the first time in my life I’ve done radio is extraordinary. It’s fascinating – you never know from one week to the next what you’re going to do. At least you don’t have to learn the scripts, which is a great joy.”

During breaks in the radio sessions David was back in Derbyshire to record scenes for a film, Madness in the Method, which is due to be released in September. David plays a judge. He also had a small part in another film, ironically playing a father whose son is dying from alcoholism.

He says he still has the energy for all the projects he works on although he feels more tired at the end of them. And retirement is not an issue.

“My ambition is to be happy, to keep going, to do a good job, to be honest and to have integrity.

David Sterne black and white“So many people say ‘you should do a show about your life.’ I say one day if the feeling’s right I might do it in a village hall here in Hampshire to raise money for the church. Not a show, just a talk.

“It might be nice to write a book – not that anybody would read it. You’ve always got to be wanting to do something new.

“It would be nice for my granddaughter to remember granddad in a panto before I die. If there’s any kids’ TV going I’d like to do that for the same reason.

“I’ve always said the thing that people don’t understand unless they’re actors is that when you’ve finished a job you almost believe it’s your last. And everyone laughs. You just have to take one day at a time.”

As for the future, he says he has all sorts of possible jobs bubbling away that he cannot talk about until they actually happen. It appears as though it may be a long time before in-demand actor David Sterne completes his last job.

* This article appeared in the April 2017 edition of Country Images magazine

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